Is Power-Sharing Dead? Some Suggestions for the Way Forward

14th Jun 2021 by John Nagle

Is Power-Sharing Dead?  Some Suggestions for the Way Forward

This essay is part of a SEPAD report reflecting on the Middle East in 2050

Power-sharing has become a key instrument of constitutional designers to cease violent conflict. Beginning with Lebanon’s Ta’if Agreement in 1989, power-sharing has been adopted or been prescribed for managing ethnic and ethnonational conflict in deeply divided societies, stretching from Macedonia, Burundi, Bosnia, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Kenya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Power-sharing is a divisive system. Proponents claim that power-sharing is the best choice for inclusive statebuilding in the aftermath of intrastate violence (see Wolff 2011), while critics argue that it cements divisions and fosters dysfunctional governance (see Taylor 2006). Yet, although power-sharing may be the preferred framework for divided societies, it is notable that there is a downward trend in power sharing agreements.

In the period 2005-2021, only one major power-sharing agreement has been signed in an effort to end civil war – Sudan. The reason for this is not simply attributable to a decline of intrastate conflict. In fact, as a UN report notes, in 2016 more countries experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly 30 years and the death rate had increased tenfold from the post–Cold War low of 2005 (Marc 2016).

The conflicts that have emerged out of Arab Uprisings – most notably Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen appear –have been identified by scholars and policymakers as suitable for power-sharing (Heydemann, 2020). Yet, the prospect of the respective belligerents entering into a power sharing pact in Syria, and Yemen, or Libya appears remote (see Mabon 2020; Salloukh 2020).

What, then, is causing the retreat of power-sharing agreements over the last decade? And, in outlining some of the factors underlying this trend, I ask what needs be done to salvage power-sharing.

The Lack of External Actors

External actors have facilitated power-sharing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Sudan and Macedonia (McCulloch and McEvoy 2018). To a degree the rise in post-cold war power-sharing coincides with what has been termed the ‘American Moment’, a period marked by US’ status as an unrivalled superpower. Alongside the US, other external actors have played vital roles in the implementation of power-sharing. Burundi’s Arusha Accords were overseen by the France and the Organisation for African Unity.

Yet, crucially, many of the hot or frozen conflicts today suffer from the want of constructive external actors willing to deploy their influence to craft power sharing pacts. The wars in Syria and Ukraine, in particular, involve Russia in both cases and Iran in the former. In addition, Syria features interventions by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and a limited response by USA. Such conflicts which contain a high number of belligerents and interested parties are notoriously difficult to resolve due to the multiple claims and demands advanced by the respective actors.

The civil war in Syria is particularly illustrative regarding external actors and power-sharing. Most prominently, key policymakers within the UN, especially Lakhdar Brahimi, then the UN Special Envoy to Syria, called for a power-sharing solution between the regime and the opposition forces. These efforts to impose power-sharing in Syria, however, have borne little fruit with Lakhdar Brahimi calling his role ‘mission impossible’ (BBC 2015).

Brahimi’s drew his conclusion from how the civil war has become enmeshed within a proxy conflict, particularly with Saudi Arabia attempting to reverse Iran’s growth in regional influence since the 2003 Iraq war. Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran currently demonstrate little appetite or need to promote power-sharing in Syria.

The influence of Iran and Russia in Syria runs parallel to the withdrawal of the USA as a leading player across the Middle East. In the aftermath of the debacle of the occupation of Iraq, US power has undergone retrenchment. Marc Lynch (2015) captures this as ‘right sizing’ the US’s footprint in the Middle East by reducing its political and military investment in the region. As a consequence of this, rather than promote power-sharing, US policy in recent years has, in some instances, led to the collapse of power-sharing agreements, such as Iraq.

Complex Conflicts

It is a redundant point to note that conflicts are complex. They are never simply about one issue; instead they encompass a wide range of grievances that differ across and within regions, and groups are never homogeneous in their political aspirations and identity.

There is a question, however, regarding the extent to which many contemporary conflicts can be understood as displaying clear divisions that correspond to a divided polity. Syria and Libya, places where proponents prescribe power-sharing remedies, are not quintessentially divided places like Northern Ireland and Bosnia defined by conflicts of ethnonationalist self-determination. It can, of course, be argued that the conflict Syria quickly took on some of the features of group polarization. Rounds of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and desecration of religious sites, have all been conducted along sectarian lines. While sectarianism is not the cause of the civil war, it has become a reality in the violent conduct of state forces, the various militias and in the modes of interpretation of the conflict deployed by international actors (Phillips, 2016).

Research on the Syrian conflict highlights the analytical tool of intersectionality proves useful in understanding and dealing with the multiple cleavages simultaneously interacting in Syria today. Syria is thus a lot more complex than a mere sectarian divide, and therefore needs a conflict resolution process that can address the myriad different issues happening concurrently (Mahmoud and Rosiny 2018).

This issue about the complexity of contemporary conflicts pose challenges to designers of power-sharing agreements. On the one hand, the strength of power-sharing is that it gives rights and protections to the main sectarian or ethnic groups. Yet, on the other hand, power-sharing is exclusionary by limiting conflict to one dimension – ethnic or sectarian – it typically excludes and marginalizes groups that are not ethnic. Thus power-sharing systems are often poor when it comes to the issue of gender quality, rights for LGBTQ and migrant groups (Nagle 2016, 2018, 2020).

Some Suggestions

Is power-sharing dead or does it still represent the best tool to help build democracy and security in postwar contexts? Three key issues need to be addressed in order to answer this question.

  • Can power-sharing systems be applied without the key role of external actors? In brief, it seems doubtful that in many cases the respective belligerents in intrastate conflicts will hammer out power-sharing agreements without being forced to do so by powerful external actors. The question, therefore, is whether these external actors may in the near future use their leverage to enforce power-sharing. The new Biden administration in the US may once again see power-sharing as a key instrument of its foreign policy, especially as Biden has a record – albeit chequered -  of advocating power-sharing. Similarly, there is nothing inherently in the makeup of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia that suggests that they are intractably opposed to power-sharing. Given the immense economic burdens involved in maintaining proxy conflicts, it is not too fanciful to suggest that these states could support power-sharing in Syria and Yemen, in particular, if that allowed them to maintain some degree of influence in the postwar state where they have acted as third-parties.
  • Can future power-sharing pacts protect and enhance gender equality, rights for LGBTQ population and representation for migrants? In order to do this, power-sharing requires a framework which deals with how various forms of inequality intersect in the dynamics of conflict.
  • Given the complexity of contemporary conflicts, one way in which some of these issues can perhaps be dealt with is via more localized forms of power-sharing. Indeed, research demonstrates that while there is an apparent decline in national level power-sharing pacts, there has been a proliferation of local level power-sharing agreements, such as in Libya. These agreements provide more scope and potential for issues that are grounded in local dynamics to come to the fore.